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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

Ronald Stevenson


A memoir: 2

<< Continued from part 1

Ronald began composing in 1943, during his mid-teens. Since then he's completed around a thousand movements, settings or arrangements, ranging from the gigantic to the aphoristic, passacaglia to album-leaf, orchestra, chamber ensemble and voice to clarsach, highland bagpipes and free-bass accordion. 38% of this output is for piano (original works, cadenzas, transcriptions, folksong settings); 35% is vocal (including chorus); and 15% comprises transcriptions for other media. The emphasis on vocal music is significant: I remember Ronald's wife, Marjorie, once enlightening me by saying that the clue to understanding her husband lay more through his songs than his piano pieces. Combined, the body of transcriptions and folksong arrangements adds up to around 39% of Ronald's activity over the years, indicative of the importance he places in such work.

RS defines the piano as 'the Romantic instrument par excellence. It still is. Art is Romantic when it suggests a reality larger than itself. That is why the piano is the Romantic instrument; for it suggests the orchestra. It is the only instrument that can.' To it he has confessed his most intimate, his most public thoughts. Through it he has suggested the symphonic, imagined the orchestral, essayed the abstract, the descriptive, the worldly; he has dreamt dreams miniature and monumental. His piano music is real piano music. It grows out of the instrument, it is not imposed on it. Inventively, he's a man of variation, fantasy and fugue more than sonata - to adapt his description of MacDiarmid (1962), 'an apocalyptic ragman among contemporary composers,' seizing 'any and every fragment of fact and fantasy' before emptying his ragbag 'in a niagaran spate of music.'

'What an exquisite pianist!' admired Grainger. 'Your tone-differentiation (bringing out middle-melodies) is superb' (6th May 1959): listening to Ronald's unmissable 'Percy Grainger: Salute to Scotland' album (Altarus AIR-CD-9040) takes one back to another age. I first heard him play a decade later - two recitals at the Purcell Room, including the London premiere of the Passacaglia (4th March) and the Prelude, Fugue and Fantasy on Busoni's Faust (11th). A luke-warm Max Harrison (Musical Times, May 1969) thought his 20th century repertory 'more sharply characterised' than his classical, but 'remained unconvinced about the unusual range of tone colour it is claimed that Stevenson commands.' My own abiding memory of the occasion was a performance of Chopin's Third Scherzo crowned by a slowly accelerating coda the sheer groundswell and Brucknerian symphonicism of which I've never heard since from anyone either in concert or on disc (though Argerich has come close). It was an astonishing insight. Like the younger David Wilde and John Ogdon, Ronald studied at the Manchester College of Music (the present RNCM) with the Russian-born Iso Elinson (1907-64), a Leningrad pupil of Felix Blumenfeld - the teacher of Barere and Horowitz. From Elinson he learnt how to stroke rather than hit keys (the 'soft hand, velvet fingered' approach of Thalberg), how to avoid excess percussive action, and how to make counterpoint sing. Apropos L'Art Nouveau du Chant appliqué au piano transcriptions of Victorian and Edwardian songs modelled after Thalberg's L'Art du Chant appliqué au piano (1853), dedicated to the memory of his father, bel canto, he's said, is his 'main interest in piano playing.' Thalberg's belief that 'broad, noble, dramatic melodies should be delivered in chest notes' is very much his. Likewise that one should self-listen, self-question and severely self-judge. 'To play too fast is a palpable defect,' Thalberg says. Ronald's concern that 'there is no grace in the style of [modern] playing, no elegance, no charm. Pianists no longer "sing" with their fingers' (Scotland on Sunday, February 26th 1989) patently points to where his own priorities lie. Paderewski-style chord rolling, staggered hands to help the line sing, Thalbergian divisions of melody, accompaniment and bass, using all three pedals (Busoni's 'photograph of the sky'), the ability to turn traditionally anti-piano effects like plucking strings into starry points of beautiful sound (listen to his Altarus recording of the Peter Grimes Fantasy, AIR-CD-9042), a bold love of ringing trebles, brilliant-flying descants and resonantly firm yet rounded basses, all dynamically dramatized, suggests something of his emotionally uninhibited yet physically disciplined 'grand' manner. Harold Taylor calls him a 'giant'.

From the beginning, his repertory, like his programming, eschewed the merely routine. 'Ronald Stevenson - Pianist', a gold-and-white brochure from around the mid-sixties, shows what was on offer in those working/travelling days. Nine mainstream concertos, eight in minor keys, by Bach (D minor), Mozart (D minor), Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin (E minor), Liszt (No. 1), Grieg and Paderewski. A cross-section of 'modern works' for piano and orchestra by Busoni, Vlad, Tagliapietra, Bartók (No. 3) and Szymanowski, together with his own Faust Triptych. The complete Bach '48' and Chopin studies. A selection of Beethoven sonatas. New works by Soviet, British, America, Israeli, Polish and Scandinavian composers. Music by Schoenberg, Gershwin, Busoni and Grainger. And four lecture-recitals - on Busoni, Grainger, 'Modern Music' and 'The Contemporary Composer and Folk Music'.

Ronald, magician-like, deals in the spell no less than science of music. To some he will always remain the enigma, to others the elixir, of our times. He makes Hercualian demands on himself and expects no less from his interpreters. The feelings he seeks to unfold kaleidoscopically knot the loving and the tender, the awesome and the fearful, the weighty and the playful, the domestic and the politic, laughter and tears. He is not, as Banowetz reminds us, 'an "easy" composer for either performer or listener, yet he is one of the few in whose music there can always be felt a personal integrity and a profound emotional message. This makes him very precious indeed.'

 Copyright © Ates Orga, June 18th 1999

Ates Orga discusses Ronald Stevenson's piano music in Colin Scott-Sutherland's symposium on the composer forthcoming later this year from Toccata Press, London.


Hear Ronald Stevenson play on

Altarus Records

including his own major solo works and music or transcriptions by Busoni, Chopin, Debussy, Grainger, Liszt, MacDowell, Marek and Sorabji


The Ronald Stevenson Society


Scottish Music Information Centre


Details of Colin Scott-Sutherland's
forthcoming Stevenson symposium
are available from:

Toccata Press, London


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